Ed Brubaker: Criminal Mastermind

There are two faces to Sony’s Angel of Death, which began online serialization this week on Crackle.com. One is Zoe Bell, starring as the rebellious mob assassin who is, one presumes, the angel in question. She was at Wondercon last weekend promoting the project with the other key player, a name more familiar at the comics-heavy event: Ed Brubaker, one of the most successful and talented writers working in comics today. While maintaining a high-profile run on Captain America, anchoring one of the half-million X-Men books and showing up here and there (for an acclaimed run, with co-writer Matt Fraction on The Immortal Iron Fist, not too long ago), he’s also writing gut-punching crime comics. He has blended the superhero flavor with neo-noir in underground hits like Sleeper, and his current supervillain piece, Incognito. His best work these days may be Criminal, collected so far in four graphic novels that are as clever, bleak and finely crafted as anything out there, with pictures or not.

see our Zoe Bell profile here.

Brubaker comes across as a soft-spoken, genuinely nice guy. He writes some dark stuff, and is a big star in the relatively small world of comics, so there are a lot of ways a dude like that could go wrong in the sanity and ego categories. Instead you get a friendly guy who looks younger than his 43 years and seems way too laid back to be producing as much work as he does.

Badmouth: How did this project come together?

Brubaker: The producer, John Norris, was emailing me, trying to option one of my comics, Criminal, and I couldn’t do that ’cause we were already working on various things that haven’t ended up happening … But he said, ‘Well, we’ve been talking to Zoe Bell,’ and I said, ‘Let me come up with something new for Zoe.’ And I had this idea I’d been kicking around for awhile. So I just changed it to make it more, you know, more geared for Zoe and gave him that the next day, basically. I wrote it overnight and sent him the pitch for it, and they all just loved it and from there it just kind of steamrolled until a couple weeks later I was being flown down to L.A. by Sony for meetings and it was greenlit before I even started writing the script. That’s the thing about doing something for the Internet right now—people are trying to get product for it.

The idea was to try to create a feature film that could be shown in episodes, too—something that worked both as an episodic series and as a feature, too.

You have a lot of experience writing episodic stories, but these are tight little six- and eight-minute episodes. Was it hard working within those confines?

It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, actually, coming from comics. I always wished I had more pages, you know … but I knew, before I started working, what was going to be in every episode, because i’d written my outline and then I had to break that down, ‘Well, this is in that episode …’ So, a couple episodes, I was actually, ‘Oh, I have two pages extra, if I want.’ But I was looking at it as a feature, too, and it had to work as a feature. …

The thing I keep pointing out to people—people are like, ‘Well, what’s different about yours?’ and, well, it’s a feature film, broken down into episodes, and it has a bit more story than a 90-minute film would normally have, because of that. Each episode had to have a certain amount of stuff. But also, nobody talks to the camera, ever. Nobody has a web blog. There’s no acknowledgment that it’s about the Internet at all. Movies don’t acknowledge that they’re in a movie theater, or on your TV or whatever, so why does every web thing have to acknowledge that it’s on the web? That just drove me crazy. Let’s just … the web is just how it’s being broadcast, it’s the middleman.

You’ve always worked collaboratively, but in this case the director’s running with it, Zoe’s running with it—what was it like to collaborate in an environment like that?

A little nerve-wracking, to some degree, because I’m such a control freak, I think, and in comics you can be a control freak, really, really easily. Ninety percent of what’s there was pretty much what I wrote, actually, and I felt like the director and I really had the same vision of what we wanted out of the project. There were a couple moments where … my instincts are usually to explain less, rather than more, because I feel like we over-explain stories way too much, often, but we’re doing a thing that’s being funded by a big studio and they’re spending a lot of money on it. So not every single moment came out the way I pictured it, but a lot of things came out way better than I pictured it. Suggestions that [director] Paul [Etheredge] had were way better than what I had, and Ron, our stunt coordinator came up with some really amazing fight stuff.

But it was really amazing to see, because in comics, if I say this takes place here, then it takes place here, and if we need a doughnut shop, that’s what’s drawn. But in the film, it’s like, ‘Hey, we can’t get a doughnut shop, so how about we do this instead?’ There’s a whole … I learned a lot about how many moving parts there are and how directing a film, making a film, is so much about what you’re not allowed to do, or you don’t have the money to do, or you can’t get that shot today so we’ve got to do something else. So much of it is about how all the parts are constantly moving until they’re locked into place.

Did that influence the writing? There’s only so much action—you can’t blow up a shopping mall for this.

Yeah, exactly. I wrote for the budget, and there were times when I’d have to call up the director: ‘I want to do a scene like this—can we afford that?’ That was another learning experience, because with comics there’s an unlimited budget. So it was a big learning experience, but I liked having it. I’m kinda glad that that’s the first thing that I did that got made, because it’s hard to get something made, and it’s good to have that first thing be kind of contained. I mean, nobody spent $20 million on this thing, ’cause that would feel weird to me, to have that much money at stake in something I wrote. A million dollars is a fuckload of money, you know? [laughs] I’ve never seen a million dollars, but I saw it in action. And we had a 50-person crew, so we were employing a lot of people for, like six weeks … something like that, a five-and-a-half-week shoot. It was intensive, you know—it was 12-hour days and the director barely slept the whole time, it seemed like.

That seems to be what they do …

Exactly, yeah, they just drive themselves to the edge of death.

We’ve got an assassin, a tale of revenge, it seems like a mob war … a lot of these are familiar elements for crime fiction, and on the one hand, especially in those first episodes when you’ve got five minutes, six minutes, to hook people, using the familiar elements helps; you have to explain it less. But you’re also searching for originality. Is it a difficult thing to balance?

I dunno, I don’t really think about it much while I’m writing it. I just try to write the characters, y’know, and for this I think I knew the plot so well because I’d had to write an outline, and I’d also had to give the director and Sony and everybody the ‘This is this episode, and this is this episode …’ so I kinda knew what everything was going to be. So I really just tried to make sure Zoe’s character, Eve, had a really good arc through this thing, and that was really all I cared about was just sort of writing the characters. …

I worry less about originality than most writers probably do because I learned early on from a big comic book writer, this guy Archie Goodwin, when I was a teenager I was talking to him and he asked me who my favorite writer was. I was, like, a 15-year-old kid at a convention, and I said ‘Oh, Alan Moore, ’cause his stuff is so much more original than everybody else’s.’ And he said, ‘Well, originality is overrated. There are only five stories in the world, and it’s how you tell them that makes your version good,’ and that always stuck with me, so I worry less about that and more about just trying to tell a good story.

So this thing, on the screen, it’s Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death

I know, I know, that’s a little nauseating, [laughs] to be branded

Well, this is a genre you’ve staked out in comics, and a lot of people when they go from writing comics, they join the staff of Lost, or Heroes

[Laughs] Those poor guys who joined the staff of Lost

Exactly … Did you ever see yourself going that way, or are you glad to stake out a more independent territory?

Well, they never offered me a staff job on Lost. That would’ve been hard to turn down. I don’t live in L.A., so a lot of that stuff doesn’t come up. I came close to working on a TV show last year, but I didn’t want to move to L.A. for two months to work on it, so … I’m busy. I’ve got a lot of comics to work. But I’ve always hoped … I’ve been coming down and meeting with people in L.A. for seven or eight years, and I’ve written some screenplays that haven’t been made. So I’ve always been hoping I’d get some screenwriting in, too, as much as comics is really my first love and where I make most of my living, but making films is fun. And, growing up, my uncle was a famous noir screenwriter, John Paxton, who made Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, The Wild One, so I always grew up around that world a little bit, and always knew screenwriting was something people did. It never occurred to me that it was something I couldn’t do. But I know that it’s very, very hard to get in.

A lot of your influences, the genre things you like, are in the back pages of Criminal, but those tend to be about crime fiction. … What are some of your influences or pleasures in writing or film that might surprise people about the crime guy or the big-action comic book guy?

My wife and I have kind of a conflict in that I actually like romantic comedies [laughs]. I’m a big romance comics fan, like John Romita romance comics, and stuff like Archie was a big influence growing up—I just loved Archie comics. The series I did for Vertigo, Dead Enders, was just supposed to be a post-apocalyptic Archie comic, and they forced me to have a plot, and I was always just bitter about having to have a plot.

Any more projects coming up with Sony or anyone like that?

I’m hoping to. We’re talking about a few other things, but nothing I can announce yet. But we’re hoping to do more stuff like this. And I’ve got different projects that I’m working on that we have a lot of interest in right now, but nothing finalized. But we’ve got people crawling all over us for Incognito now. [A laugh] Watchmen won’t hurt, hopefully.

Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death premieres March 2 on Crackle.com.
Photo credits: All photos by Joel Warren/Crackle.com.